In trying to do so much we do too little

in doing too much

Image: @jasonramasami

Recently, I asked a class of top-set year 11s to identify the verbs in a piece of writing. It was a seemingly simple activity that I had given them a few minutes to complete, yet it quickly became clear from the blank faces I was met with that my request had posed something of a problem: after five years of secondary school, a sizeable proportion of the group did not know what a verb was.

How many times in 11 years of schooling must they have encountered the term before? How many times must they have heard the word uttered from a teacher’s lips or seen it written up on a board? Yet despite numerous exposures, this relatively simple concept, one probably within the capacity of a bright 5 year-old, had slipped away and had hardly been grasped at all.  Of course, the humble verb is but the tip of the iceberg; the number of completely learnable terms and concepts which I have exposed my students to and they have have not learnt is too numerous to list.

This realisation, that so much of what I have taught has not been learnt, has been steadily dawning on me over the past year or so. It has set in motion a strange and vertiginous feeling, akin perhaps to trudging for many miles across a plateau in the hope of finding a place to spend the night, only to find oneself standing at the edge of a plunging, bottomless abyss.

Much has gone before, in my classroom and in others. Curricular have been jammed with sparkling ideas and concepts; lessons have overflowed with activities and ingenious new strategies; every inch of white board has been crammed with text and pictures and diagrams. Exercise books have been filled with words; hours of discussion have ricocheted between the classroom walls; synapses have sparked and connected in their billions. But still it is the same. So many children leave school knowing far less than we would hope them to.

The reasons for this are complex. Anybody who tries to tell you that there is one cause is wrong. Anybody who finds solace in an ideological or scientific explanation is probably only telling you half the story. Society, motivation and development all play a part, but I still think one of the causes has its roots in both curriculum and pedagogy. There is a paradox here: in trying to do so much we do too little.

My theory is that we try to throw too much at children, and that this is why so little of it sticks. A basic understanding of cognitive load theory can help us to conceptualise why over-stuffing lessons and curricular does not work. The human working memory – the part of the brain that processes new information – can only cope with a limited number amount of new information at one time. When it becomes ‘overloaded’, there is no room left to think, which can then prevent new information from reaching the destination it needs to get to: the long-term memory, where it can be stored indefinitely. (Alex Quigley usefully sums up how this works in this post on thinking hard.)

There are other reasons, too. One, which I have dubbed the as-the-crow-flies-error, lies in asking students to perform complex skills, like analysing a writer’s style, before being secure in the knowledge needed to be able to do this, such as understanding the text’s plot or comprehension of the writer’s language.

The recent drive to increase the level of ‘challenge’ in lessons is an important one, but only if this challenge is focused and achievable. I would argue that we should always aim for more depth and less breadth. Drawing on international comparisons, Tim Oates argues – here – that teachers should look to expand upon the current idea before progressing to the next ones. Take one idea and examine it in depth, rather than let five or six ideas be touched upon superficially. A concern with this approach, some might argue, is that it does not benefit our more-able students who will be forced to remain with topics that they are ready to move on from. However, with good planning and more imaginative and stretching questions, our more-able students might well benefit more from this approach than any other.

The beauty of this way of thinking is that we might achieve more success by doing less work than we already do. By stepping back, by deciding on what is most important (and then going home a little earlier) could we go some way towards helping students to learn things more securely?

What follows are the things I am currently working on in my role as English teacher; the principle behind them all, however, could extend into all aspects of school life:

  • Plan to teach only 1 or 2 new vocabulary words or concepts per lesson.
  • Give less feedback – i.e. set one target, not two, but give time and space over a number of lessons to work on it.
  • Limit the number of success criteria, or procedural processes, that students work on in one go. (I have a habit of asking students to do 5 or 6 new things in their work; it works better to use fewer so that they can really think about them.)
  • If a slide show is to be used, cut down the number of words per slide, and cut down the number of total slides . If they have to read something from the slide, allow time for that.
  • Plan for two or three tasks per lesson, no more. Revisit the same material but in slightly different ways.
  • Decide on the key, essential knowledge that must not be forgotten. Teach it, revisit it, test it … and repeat. Joe Kirby’s knowledge organisers provide a useful model of how this could be organised.
  • Teach a bit, let the students write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Teach a bit, write a bit. Lesson over.

Ultimately, all this is about prioritisation, about separating the wheat from the chaff – and then ensuring that the wheat is learnt well.

And if you are prepared to take this jump, perhaps you will have the spare time to start visiting friends, reading books, doing the things you enjoy and, dare I say it, forgetting about work.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this video on the art of subtraction from Jason Ramasami, who illustrates this blog.)

How to ensure that feedback leads to real learning


Image: @jasonramasami

In our recent book, Making every lesson count, Shaun Allison and I have used the following diagram to introduce the idea that feedback is a two-way process:


The notion on the left, that feedback should inform planning, is often overlooked; instead, teacher-to-student feedback is very much the flavour of the month – to the extent that ‘quality of marking’ has now become an accepted measure of a teacher’s effectiveness. However, there is a logical error inherent in this way of thinking. Quality of feedback can only be contingent on the quality of the initial input. Harry, for example, might have received high-quality teaching and no written feedback from his teacher; Hannah, in another class, might have been the recipient of poor teaching and lots of remedial feedback. It is absurd to suggest that Harry’s teacher’s marking is of a lesser quality than Hannah’s teacher’s marking, without taking into account the quality of the initial teaching. If students are clearly making good progress, does it matter how much or how little red pen is in the books?

The craze for written feedback might also lead to a reliance on flimsy teaching methods. The mistakes I notice in my students’ written work are often the results of conceptual knowledge gaps or ingrained bad habits. Sometimes they are a combination of the two, and these cannot be solved by a couple of lines of red biro. Let’s say I write, ‘You need to use the possessive apostrophe accurately’ in a child’s exercise book. This is only useful if: a) he already knows and understands the concept of the possessive apostrophe, and b) the feedback reminds him to use the possessive apostrophe in his future writing. If these requirements are not met, then my written feedback will not solve the problem alone. Only focussed teaching and/or sustained practice over time will lead to a genuine improvement.

DIRT (dedicated improvement and reflection time), when the class can begin to practise their mistakes, is a useful starting point. Too often, however, it only papers over the cracks. The most useful thing about looking at student work is that it provides us with a recipe for future action. We learn what we need to teach again or teach better; we learn about our students’ working habits and how they can be improved.

It is important that schools and departments provide teachers with the flexibility and space they need to respond to their classes. Schemes-of-work and plans should have built-in room for this; they should not be too rigid. Destinations should remain the same, even if the journey is very different for each teacher and each class. This term, we are starting fortnightly revision lessons with our year 10s. Not only will these allow us to review previous content, but they will allow us to revisit areas of general weakness too. The link between reflection and planning is crystal clear; it feels like a powerful process.

It is frustrating that reflective and responsive planning, unlike marking, is largely invisible. We cannot pin it down or measure it; it happens in a teacher’s thoughts. Perhaps it is the root of what we call ‘expertise’, where our knowledge of how to teach our subject meets our ever-growing understanding of our students’ learning. When we watch a successful teacher in action, we witness a complex array of behaviours. It is difficult to distinguish which of these strategies is the cause of her success; it is even more difficult to conceptualise the thoughtful planning that has carried her to this point in time.

How best to bring this tacit thinking to light? How best to learn from the best teaching? Shaun Allison and I have started interviewing some of our most successful teachers in an attempt to tap into what they do and why they do it. These interviews have been fascinating, but we are struggling to find the best ways of sharing this information. How do we use it to develop the practice of others? I also like the idea of ‘learning observations’, when a teacher coaches another right through the planning, teaching and reflection process, so that both the thinking and the action are modelled.

The best that teachers and leaders can do is to encourage not only a culture of learning and reflection, but also one of humility. At its best, the idea that there are ‘great’ or ‘outstanding’ teachers in a school will create a few over-inflated egos; at its worst, it will lead to division and resentment. I have learnt most from those teachers who are never afraid to say that they have got it wrong and that they are going to try it again another way.

When school leaders and subject leaders do this, and when the staff room is full of teachers talking about the problems they are trying to solve, this is when our students will really start to learn from feedback.

Related posts:

Feedback: let’s build it in, not add it on

The unbearable mystery of learning

knowing Images: @jasonramasami

We have always liked to holiday in European cities. Before our son was born, one of our habits was to take the metro to a random place beyond the predictability of the inner-city environs. One stop a few miles from the centre of Hamburg, the name of which I have long forgotten, comes to mind. We stepped onto a platform set in flat fields with nothing around apart from a tidy set of allotments to one side, and a gaggle of unfriendly, low-set apartments to the other. It was completely unremarkable in every way.

I can’t put my finger on why I enjoy visiting such empty places. However, one of the reasons might be to do with the mysterious sense of transience they evoke. It is strange how two large chunks of concrete, two long lines of steel and a corrugated iron roof can bring meaning to what was once emptiness. Before the metro line was constructed, did these fields mean anything to anyone other than the farmer who tilled them? Not so long ago, would they have even been considered a place at all?

For the woman sitting on the train on the way to work – flicking through her newspaper, perhaps, or sipping a coffee – this station and this field have a concrete meaning. They are a name on a map, joined by a straight blue line to two other names, one in each direction.

Yet for the farmer whose field has now been cut in two, this station and train line have another significance. Most likely, they are an unnecessary nuisance that add extra difficulty to his work. And for the Turkish grandfather, now too weak to leave his top floor apartment, the station and train line in the distance are a sharp reminder that this new, inexplicable world is fast leaving him behind.

As a society, as an education system and as teachers we create similar tube maps. These are our curricular, schemes of work and learning objectives. We choose, rightly or wrongly, the best getting-off points and we teach with these certainties in mind. This is simple, clear and logical. How could we do it any other way?

Yet what we often forget is that what we intend to teach is not necessarily what is experienced or learnt by the people and minds we tend to. The clear, well-connected tube maps we carry so comfortably ourselves are rarely, if ever, received as carbon-copy replicas by our students. Even though learning science seems to suggest that how we learn is remarkably similar, what we learn is often very personal indeed.

It never ceases to amaze me that despite my methodical, largely traditional approach to classroom teaching, my students learn such different things. While I aim for some degree of uniformity, it rarely happens; the input never seems to match the output. Yes, there are patterns, patterns they and I can learn from. Yet every essay is different and every spelling test shows a remarkable array of strengths and weaknesses. The same student on a another day can produce markedly different work.

Graham Nuthall estimated that around a third of an individual student’s learning is unique to them and is not learnt by others in the same classroom. Why? The reasons are myriad and complicated and involve a heady mix of prior knowledge, motivation, social relationships and contextual ‘in-the-moment’ factors.

I enjoyed reading this passage from John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) this week:

It has become clear over the year that these children see school almost entirely in terms of the day-to-day and hour-to-hour tasks that we impose on them. This is not at all the way the teacher thinks of it. The conscientious teacher thinks of himself as taking his students (at least part way) on a journey to some glorious destination, well worth the pains of the trip.

Perhaps we have gone some way towards reversing this discrepancy in recent years but I rather suspect that it still exists, even in the best schools. Many times, despite having shared what I thought to be clear learning objectives, my students will come to the next lesson asking “Are we still finishing off that sheet?” rather than “Are we still analysing Dickens’ use of language in Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol?”

Other more recent thinkers, such as David Didau, have got me thinking about the invisibility and liminality of learning. What a student says and the work he produces do not tell us reliably whether he has learnt something or not. And, in the case of complex concepts, our students rarely know or don’t know something – they are often grappling in a space somewhere in between.


I think it is time to consign certainty to a place far away (maybe to a field somewhere in northern Germany?) and face up to the unbearable. Data and spreadsheets, and words like ‘progress’ and ‘impact’, are not completely meaningless; they have their uses. But they just have far less meaning than many will have you believe.

There are ‘best bets’ when it comes to teaching practice; Shaun Allison and I have written about challenge, explanation, modelling, lots of practice, feedback and questioning in our book Making Every Lesson Count. Nevertheless, there are no silver bullets and learning remains confusing and, at times, illogical.

Let’s enjoy it for what it is.


Posts with a similar theme:

You win some, you lose some

GCSE results and the stories we tell ourselves

The poetry dilemma: to teach or to elicit?


I have always struggled with teaching poetry. My lessons regularly leave me with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and an unanswered question: Why didn’t they quite get it? I think the reason lies in a delicate problem that all English teachers face daily.

How much should I tell them and how much should I elicit from them?

There’s no easy answer, but I think there are some serious flaws with a teaching approach that relies too heavily on the elicitation method, especially when starting out on a study of challenging poetry. It’s worth considering how we prepare to teach a new poem. If you are anything like me you will read it a few times, Google a few lines you are unsure about and discuss any tricky bits with your colleagues. This week, as I’ve been preparing to teach Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’, a colleague has helped me grasp the meaning of the poem’s tricky penultimate verse. (Cheers Russ!)

In truth, even as the ‘expert’ in the classroom I look for outside support to help me shape my interpretation.

If it is tough for me, it is likely to be even tougher for very many of my students. The problem with asking for students’ interpretations is that, more often than not, they are either non-existent (I don’t know … ), completely wrong (Ozymandias is about a war in the desert) or over-simplistic (Ozymandias is about time). Too often, one or two bright sparks in the room carry the class while the rest hopelessly try to guess the ideas I am holding back from them.

That said, I think it would be a mistake if students were not to experience the sense of satisfaction that comes from finding truth, meaning and even beauty in a jumble of words that once appeared incomprehensible. A problem we cannot solve taps into our natural sense of curiosity. It’s an itch we need to scratch.

So here are three very simple ways I am trying to solve my dilemma.

1. The first is a must and will come as no surprise. Give them a hook. It could be an introduction to a theme or context. In our department, we are enjoying finding literary fiction and non-fiction texts to act as thematic hooks. This week, however, to introduce ‘Ozymandias’ I used a series of images of Barack Obama, each one a little smaller than the previous, and each labelled with a year from 2015 to 3015. By 3015, the screen was a blank page. The message was clear: given time, Obama’s current power and influence will have fizzled, inevitably, into nothing.

2. Next, I read the poem out loud and, after this, they read it themselves. Their job is to do four things:

1) Circle and label anything of interest – this might be related to language, themes or anything that takes their fancy.
2) Draw a square around anything they do not understand.
3) Write a comment about any patterns they notice.
4) Make a link to another text they have read this year.

Now, of course, this task offers up the possibility of misunderstandings and misconceptions. Students do – modestly – seem to benefit from exlicit modelling of how to approach a new poem. My colleague, Bridget Norman, talks about developing ‘reading resilience’ – or how we get our students to keep going even when syntax and vocabulary are difficult.

Once students have had a go, I find out what they do and do not understand and then, without shame, I tell them what the poem really means – usually through annotating the poem on the board and explaining the finer details. Sometimes I will have to tell students they are completely wrong. Sometimes I will develop their nascent good ideas. Sometimes I will give them more of a say as their initial ideas are strong.

3. My third strategy is to have them answer carefully scaffolded ‘tight questions’ that allow them to think deeply about the text but ensure that their answers are likely to be good.

Take these two questions:

a) What does ‘sneer of cold command’ demonstrate about Ozymandias?
b) How does the phrase ‘sneer of cold command’ demonstrate that Ozymandias was a cruel leader?

Even though the first question is more open and will elicit a wider range of responses, the second question is more likely to lead to accurate and analytical answers. While the first question allows for freedom, question two steers them towards explaining the impact of ‘sneer’ and ‘cold’. Try it. It encourages finely focused language analysis and helps them to hone their critical writing style.

Here’s a few others I have used this week:

How do the words ‘boundless and bare’ show us that Ozymandias’ power and influence have gone?
How does the enjambment in the simile ‘spits like a tame cat/Turned savage’ create a sense of surprise?
Why does the metaphor ‘space is a salvo’ create the sense that the wind is attacking from all angles?


It is very possible that you have read this post and disagreed with me.

Perhaps you think that we need to teach students to develop their own interpretations. I agree – that should be our ultimate goal. But how can you know what a sophisticated interpretation of poetry looks like if you have not studied a number of sophisticated interpretations beforehand?

You might argue that a poem does not have one set meaning and all interpretations are valid. Again, I agree – we should teach alternative interpretations. Nevertheless, it is also true that some interpretations are stronger, more robust and more sophisticated than others.

Another reasonable complaint is that the new GCSE exams require students to read ‘unseen poems’ – shouldn’t we give them as much freedom as possible to prepare them for this? Once again, we share the same end goal. However, a huge factor of reading ability is the knowledge a student brings to their reading. To read a difficult poem successfully, they will need wide background knowledge and strong domain knowledge of the main conventions of poetry. If they do not read poetry in their spare time, they are very unlikely to develop the latter without the experience gleaned from the clear and direct teaching of many, many previous poems.


This is what I’m thinking about at the moment. Please feel free to add your thoughts below.


Related posts:

Can we teach students how to make inferences?

English teaching and the problem with knowledge

Best Bets and Firm Footings – my #rEDEng session

I spent today at the wonderful inaugural English and Literacy Research Ed conference in Swindon. My talk was on ways of using evidence in the English classroom. I looked at the different ways we aquire knowledge about English teaching, why we should embrace evidence and how to combine evidence with ‘trial and error’ and critical reflection. I then looked at some of the evidence-informed ideas I have been trialling and considered how best to encourage others to engage with evidence. Essentially, I am interested in how ordinary teachers can access the evidence themselves, rather than having it foisted upon them by those in positions of power.

I haven’t the time to write a full blog so you have two options:

First, you could download the slides.

Or second you could watch me below in all my bumbling glory. It misses off the very start but the gist of it is all there. Enjoy!

Improving recall in GCSE English language and literature: some practical suggestions

fluencyImage: @jasonramasami

In 2014, my students performed much better on the poetry paper of the AQA English Literature exam than on the modern texts paper. In 2015, the outcome reversed: this cohort achieved higher marks on the modern texts paper than the poetry. The main cause of this inversion of fortunes was simple: in both cases my students had shown more competence when answering questions on the content they had learnt most recently.

That memory weakens over time is a fact of life. That English teachers need to find more robust and creative ways of arresting this natural deterioration is a fact brought about by the transition to terminal language and literature GCSE exams.

In Building Background Knowledge: Research on What Works in Schools (2004), Robert J. Marzano, distils the research evidence into improving student memory into three principles:

1. The meaning of the new content needs to be deeply processed.
2. This new learning needs to be connected to what is already known – the technical name for this is elaboration.
3. Students need multiple exposures to this new content.

The practical suggestions that follow take heed of this advice but are also supported by a wider body of research into learning and retention too. While I have only scratched the surface of this evidence base, and while I cannot claim that these strategies will work everywhere, I think I might be able to claim that they are reasonable ‘best bets’ based on what we know now. (Please see the references at the end of the post.)

What is unlikely to work?

The worst thing we can do is to bury our heads in the sand, cross our fingers, and hope that kids will miraculously remember everything on the morning of the exam after a night of heavy cramming. Instead, we need a structured approach to the curriculum, units of work and individual lessons that moves beyond the traditional ‘blocked’ topic-by-topic approach. It is also worth noting that many of the revision methods our students default to – reading back through notes and revision guides; highlighting key information – are very inefficient strategies. They create an ‘illusion of fluency’, a cognitive slip-up we are all prone to making – in the moment of reading we feel like we know it, but this fleeting mastery slips away all too quickly.

Initial teaching

Despite the sheer quantity of content we must cover, we should resist the urge to zip through the course too swiftly. The first step in ensuring good recall is providing students with plenty of opportunity to think hard and deeply about new content. They will also need lots of opportunity to connect the new stuff to what they already know. In teaching terms, this means lots and lots of questioning and practice. As always, one of the tricks will be working out which sections of text, which quotes, which words, which images and which concepts to put under the microscope – and, on the other hand, which to put to one side.

The curriculum

In year 10, our students will cover almost all of the literature component – this will include regular opportunities to read non-fiction texts from a range of eras as well as regular creative and rhetorical writing practice. In year 11, we will regularly return to each of the key texts so that we can revise, improve any weak areas and explore them in an ever-deepening focus. The aim will be to bring everything together so that the key background knowledge is in place and we can concentrate on exam skills. At present, we have left our year 11 plans very open: this will allow us to be responsive to the needs of students in light of the fact we have not taught the courses before and do not yet know what the main sticking points will be. Our course includes half-termly assessments – based on exam-style questions – and two exam-hall mocks for each paper over the two years: eight in total.

Fortnightly revision lessons

We will also be ring-fencing an hour per fortnight in year 10 for lessons that focus purely on revision so that we can continue to revisit material in a structured way. I think these lessons will be best spent if the time is split between retrieval practice – to memorise key information such as quotes, concepts and vocabulary – and promoting deeper understanding of sophisticated ideas and interpretations. So, for instance, when revising An Inspector Calls, we will start by using a range of retention tasks (see below) that cover points from across the whole play and follow this with a much deeper focus on one aspect of the play – Priestley’s characterisation of Gerald Croft, perhaps, or Priestley’s use of different theories of time, depending on the needs of the class.

Retention Tasks

The evidence that retrieval practice – the testing effect – is a more effective form of revision than reading back over notes is compelling: using your memory improves it. Most of the tasks that follow use retrieval practice as a guiding principle, but some also take into account the importance of making connections and elaborating on knowledge. Not only are they useful in revision lessons, but also as short tasks sprinkled liberally into day-to-day lessons:

  • Memory platforms. It is always a sensible idea to begin lessons with a review task. A good trick is to mix questions that look back to the previous lesson with questions that look back much further too. So, if you are studying a Shakespeare play, ask students to not only recall the scene you looked at last lesson, but also both a the scene you looked at last week and an idea from a poem you looked at the beginning of the year.
  • Mixed questions. Similarly, dropping in random short questions on previous content is a useful habit to get into. Whenever you are putting together a list of questions, pop in a couple of wildcards to keep your students on their toes. Even more effective is to create questions that forge links between texts – e.g. Mr Birling refuses to listen to the Inspector’s warning. How does Scrooge’s response to the ghosts make him a very different character from Birling? These are crackerjack questions: they compel the answerer to make connections, to think carefully about meaning and to retrieve previous content in the process.
  • Quiz apps and online platforms. I have just been introduced to two. Quizlet allows you to create digital flashcards, is sublimely simple to use and allows students to use it on their desktops and mobile devices at home.  I have created a set of flashcards for An Inspector Calls here. Lat week, David Didau introduced me to Memrise, a quiz app designed around the principles from learning science. I have since used it to learn all the capitals of the world and all the U.S. state capitals. It is particularly useful for vocabulary definitions and memorising key words in quotations. I am in the process of putting together a series of questions on An Inspector Calls – here.
  • Flash cards. These are far more efficient than having students write down answers. They can test themselves – and each other – quickly, get immediate feedback and can be used in a variety of ways. I am experimenting with them to help students to learn quotes this year.
  • Connection tasks. Give students lists of key words – characters, themes, concepts – and ask them to create mindmaps that explore the links between them. The less obvious the connections, the better. This can work within and across texts.
  • Self-quizzing. Ask students to look through their notes (or a revision guide) and create a series of questions. In a week or two, get them to answer them without looking back at their notes. encourage them to continue this revision habit in their own time.
  • Essay plans. Planning essays means retrieving knowledge and connecting it. It is often more efficient to have students spend a lesson planning a number of responses to different questions under strict time conditions than it is to have them answer one question in full.
  • Mix ’em up. There are an endless array of retrieval tasks you could set students. It is important that students are encouraged to use a range of formats and have lots of exposures to content . This will help to crystalise the knowledge so that it is useable in new contexts. It’s no good getting 100% on a quiz app test but not being able to remember this in the alien environment of the exam hall.

Writing practice

And finally. Retrieval is only a means to an end. The task of shaping knowledge into extended written responses is a more complex one. Our students will need regular and repeated practice to do this. Furthermore, in both langauge and literature papers, they will face unseen texts. As these draw from a huge range of topics, there is no discrete knowledge to learn. Instead, the best we can do is to unpick the exam skills with a fine-toothed comb, give them ample opportunity to read and annotate unseen texts and cross our fingers in the hope that their background knowledge is broad enough to comprehend the contexts they have been given.


I hope you have found this useful. Any comments or further ideas would be gratefully received.

Thanks for reading.



Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens (London: Macmillan, 2014)

John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan and Daniel T. Willingham, Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational
Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1) (2013): 4–58. Available here.

John Hattie and Gregory Yates, Visible Learning and the Science of How We
Learn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014)

Robert J. Marzano, Building Background Knowledge: Research on What Works in Schools (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004)

Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009)

#TLT15: Achievable challenge: walking the fine line between comfort and panic

scale up

Image: @jasonramasami

What follows is a write-up of my #TLT15 presentation on ways of challenging students without making the content unachievable. Enjoy.


In 1997, Strack and Mussweiler conducted a study into what is known as the ‘anchoring effect’ – the finding that we tend to let the first piece of information we receive about a subject influence our subsequent judgements about that subject. In their study, participants were asked whether Mahatma Gandhi died before or after the age of 9 or before or after the age of 140. Participants were then asked to guess how old Gandhi really was when he died. Even though the two original questions were plainly absurd they had an interesting effect on the later estimate: the average guess of the ‘before or after 9’ group was 50, the average of the ‘before or after 140′ group was 67.

The anchoring effect is a robust finding from experimental psychology which has been reliably replicated in various contexts. I believe that the finding acts as useful guidance to teachers. To truly challenge our students, to prime them for success, we must ‘anchor-in’ high expectations from the very off so that achievement can be measured by adjusting up or down from this point. Similarly, if the anchor is set too low so that content is less stretching, then, needless to say, success will be adjusted up and down from this inferior position.

As teachers, therefore, we need to ‘scale up’ our expectations, to encourage our students to aim for more. Yet this is not enough in itself. Handing our year 7s a copy of Shakespeare’s King Lear to read for holiday homework is unlikely to yield much success. Most probably, it will lead to despair and confusion. Challenge, therefore, needs to be achievable.

In our book, Making Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and I argue that challenge should be the driving force of everything we do as teachers, yet we also argue that it is not enough on its own. Through clear and carefully structured teaching, challenging and abstract subject content can become concrete and learnable. Challenge, we believe, should be the ethos at the heart of all planning:

expert teaching

Unfortunately, much that is promoted as good differentiation practice – personalised plans, worksheets at three different levels, etc. – is unmanageable and sometimes counterproductive. Differentiation, I think, is best understood as responsive teaching. Set the bar high for all students and then respond to student needs as and when they appear. This is a skill and an art – the best differentiation lies in knowing the students, knowing the subject and being fully prepared to adapt, adapt, adapt

Drawing on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive load theory and on Carol Deck’s mindset theory, Shaun and I have attempted to conceptualise three zones a student might be working in at any time in a lesson:

challenge zone

It is the ‘struggle zone’ we must be gunning for our – even if it is near impossible for 30 students, with their complex differences in prior knowledge, to all be there at once. As Professor Robert Coe states, “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” Having every student thinking deeply (and accurately) must be our learning Shangri-La.

So how do we create a challenging classroom climate?

1. Use single and challenging learning objectives. ‘All, most, some’ objectives can unintentionally ‘anchor-in’ low expectations; they send a subliminal message: I think that some of you aren’t clever enough to do this. By expecting all kids to aim for the best, we give them the opportunity to surprise us. Many do. That’s not to say, however, that some will not need extra support – they most certainly will.

2. Plan for what students will be thinking about. I spent the early part of my career planning lessons in terms of what I would be doing and what the students would be doing. Yet the evidence, as Professor Coe’s suggests, would seem to point to a third option: it is thinking that leads to learning. “Memory is the residue of thought,” as Daniel Willingham has famously pointed out.

3. Use scaffolds judiciously and with subtlety. Scaffolds, supports and worked examples allow students to practise at a stage beyond their current capability. We must use them carefully, though. If we let the scaffold do all the thinking for them, their learning might be little more than an illusion, much like the cathedral of air below.


4. Use ever-decreasing scaffolds. Over lessons, explain, model and guide to start with and then let students have a go on their own. Over schemes of work, consider the bedrock of knowledge needed for mastery and then gradually give them the chance to apply it independently. Over the year, scaffold heavily at the start and then begin to dismantle bit by bit.

5. Consider the balance between surface learning and deep learning. Some people dislike this distinction, pointing out that extensive ‘surface knowledge’ – knowing the facts about a topic – should not be considered inferior to ‘deep-knowledge’ – how we relate, link and apply this knowledge. I would agree – see here, for instance. Nevertheless, skilled teachers are able to judge perfectly when the right time is to switch from one to the other – and when to switch back again.

6. Create benchmarks of brilliance. Drop the anchor and set the status-quo in place by asking students to do something that truly challenges them very early on in their time in your class. See here for more details.

7. Remember that challenge is a long-term venture. It is a misunderstanding to consider challenge just in terms of individual lessons. In reality, these are only stepping stones to longer term goals. Often our plans will need to be torn up so that alternative routes can be forged. As long as the destination remains sharply in focus, how we get there and how quickly we get there become of less importance.


Sometimes, however, we can get challenge wrong – very wrong. These are mistakes I have often been guilty of and am still learning from:

• Relying on challenging individual lessons and tasks without a suitably challenging curriculum.

• Too much focus on progression; too little focus on expansion. (Do listen to Tim Oates on the importance of ‘understanding the same construct but in a wider range of settings.’)

• Substituting simplicity and clarity for unnecessary difficulty (which then overloads the working-memory). A classic example from my own lessons is asking students to look up the definition of new words in the dictionary. The definitions are much harder to grasp than they are from a clear explanation and subsequent practice.

• Continually asking for more without considering a child’s sense of self-worth. (See Sutton Trust report – What Makes Great Teaching?)

• Ignoring the building blocks of knowledge and going straight for the jugular – the ‘as-the-crow-flies’ error. Often, paradoxically, teaching that builds towards challenge is slow, methodical and goes back as well as forwards.


My #TLT15 session ends with these two questions:

1. How might these ideas translate into your school and teaching context?
2. Are there any gaps, inconsistencies or tensions in the ideas I have presented in this session?

Your comments are more than welcome.

Many thanks for reading.